Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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The responsibility of Odysseus for the deaths of his shipmates in their encounter with Scylla


Odysseus bears some responsibility for the deaths of his shipmates during their encounter with Scylla. Despite knowing the dangers, he chose to navigate through Scylla's strait, prioritizing the lesser of two evils. His decision, though strategic, ultimately led to the loss of six men, highlighting the difficult choices leaders must make in perilous situations.

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How did Odysseus' shipmates die in book 12 of The Odyssey and was it his fault?

Odysseus is at fault only to the extent that he left his men alone on the island of the Sun God while he went on the other side to pray. The entire crew is starving because the ship has been becalmed for days, and they have used up their supplies. Despite being warned not to eat the sacred cattle of the Sun God, the men decide that if they must die, they'd rather die with full bellies so they eat the cattle.

Outraged, Helios demands that Zeus punish the crew severely, or he will take the sun to shine only in the Underworld. When the ship leaves the island, Zeus causes a great storm that violently tosses the ship about and then strikes it with lightning and destroys it, causing all of the men except Odysseus to drown. Only he survives because he didn't disobey the command; he clings to a makeshift raft until it is swallowed up by Charybdis. Luckily he manages to grab the branch of a fig tree until the whirlpool spits back up the raft and he can clamber aboard again. He drifts for nine days before reaching Ogygia, Calypso's island.

The crew's doom is largely their own fault because of their lack of prudence and hasty actions. However, notice that every time Odysseus leaves his men alone--whether he is literally gone or merely asleep--they get into mischief. This time their misdeeds cost them their lives.

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Is Odysseus to blame for the deaths of the six shipmates killed by Scylla in Book 12 of The Odyssey?

Odysseus explicitly takes responsibility for Scylla devouring the six oarsmen:

. . . For my part,

I let go from my mind the difficult instruction that Circe

Had given me, for she told me not to be armed for combat;

But I put on my glorious armor and, taking up two long

Spears in my hands, I stood bestriding the vessel’s foredeck

At the prow. . . .

[Book XII, ll. 225-29; Lattimore translation]

Guilt drips from his reaction to the carnage:

That was the most pitiful scene these eyes have looked on

In my sufferings as I explored the routes over water.

[Book XII, ll. 258-59]

Who's to argue with the hero himself?

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Is Odysseus to blame for the deaths of the six shipmates killed by Scylla in Book 12 of The Odyssey?

I think it depends on how you look at the situation.  Odysseus was put in a tough spot -- to either sail by Charybdis and risk all the men being killed or sail by Scylla and know that 6 men would have to be sacrificed.  I think he made the best decision; I also, however, think he can be blamed for not warning the men about what they may encounter on the water, though that may have caused hysteria. 

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